The Kuleshov effect

How context defines meaning


The storm.

Recently, Ram put out this advertisement. At first glance, I thought the ad seemed pretty normal, but then I discovered the firestorm that followed. Every comment I saw, every article I read, every response video that was posted, all bashed Ram for their “insensitive use of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote“.

Soon after this, I discovered a response video that used a different section of his “The Drum Major Instinct” speech.


This puzzled me. How could a quote’s context change its apparent meaning so much? Today, we will explore this concept, and then see how we can apply it to our beat-making and music production.

The Kuleshov effect

In the 1910-20s, Lev Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker who pondered the question, “what makes cinema a distinct art, separate from photography, literature or theater?” He came to the conclusion that any form of art has two features: The material itself, and the matter that which the material is organized.

In this way, Kuleshov came to determine that the organization of individuality shots (also called a montage) was what makes a film stand on its own as an art.

In 1921, Kuleshov first demonstrated the techniques that would later be known as The Kuleshov effect. This technique is explained perfectly here by the influential filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

Some things never change?

This idea that meaning can be defined by the context that which it is presented in is displayed perfectly in the advertisement put out by Ram.

While the Ram advertisement is not explicitly changing the meaning of the sermon, it is still very ironically excluding the segment criticizing those who buy expensive cars, and the folly of trying to “one-up” one’s neighbor.

One for the toolkit

Now, you are likely wondering how all of this ties into the art of music production and beat-making. Surprisingly, these theories of context are quite easy to apply to our music-making using one simple technique!

The technique is called reharmonization. Essentially, it is the art of alternative ideas. A good exercise for reharmonization is to play your favorite tune’s melody in one hand, (assuming you are using a keyboard), and change the chords being played beneath it. Notice how while the melody keeps the song recognizable, the new chords change the context of the melody and will evoke a different emotional feeling from the melody.

Cool stuff, right?

This can also be seen frequently in Hip Hop music. When an artist samples a record, and then adds a new bass line, or a new melody, or any other musical element, this can be considered reharmonization, even if the artist is not explicitly intending to do this.

Here is a cool video of an artist creating a song using reharmonization as its main feature!

What do you think? Was Ram in the right? Is rehamonization a cool concept? Are these examples connected?

Let me know!

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